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Old catapult in Les Baux-de-Provence, France

Rare Find of Stone Catapult Ball Fired During Medieval Siege Unearthed in Scotland

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Archaeologists in Scotland have made the rare discovery of a stone ball that was used like a cannonball during a medieval siege. The find is helping experts to better understand Scotland’s Wars of Independence (1296-1316). It is also allowing researchers an invaluable insight into military technology and siege warfare in the Middle Ages.

The find was made during a routine archaeological excavation of a planned development. It was found in the Grassmarket area of Edinburgh by a team of archaeologists from AOC Archaeology. They were investigating the site for historical artifacts and remains before the development of a 250-bed hotel in the area, which is in a historic part of the city of Edinburgh.  The excavation was funded by the India Building Company and experts are still working at the site. Edinburgh Castle which dates from the 12 th century was besieged more than two dozen times, is located not far from the excavations.

Stone Cannon Balls

The stone ball is a very significant find because it is so rare and so few have been found anywhere in Europe.  These were made by shaping and sculpting a stone into a round projectile that resembled later cannon balls.  Stone balls would have been fired from a trebuchet which can be likened to a huge catapult. It had a long wooden arm that would throw massive stone projectiles with great force. This weapon was regularly used in siege warfare in the medieval era throughout Europe and beyond before the development of cannons.

These huge catapults were used by the English in their wars in Scotland. There is documentary evidence that a trebuchet was employed by “Edward I’s army during the siege of Stirling Castle in 1304’’ reports Edinburghlive. This was the famous ‘Warwolf’, which was a gigantic trebuchet and one of the largest used in the Middle Ages.

Stone catapult balls (leomalsam / Adobe Stock)

Stone catapult balls ( leomalsam / Adobe Stock)

Siege of Edinburgh Castle 1296

The stone projectile has been tentatively linked to a siege of Edinburgh castle in 1296. It was probably fired by besieging English forces under the command of Edward I towards the gates and walls of the fortress. However, it may also have been used as a defensive weapon by the garrison in a desperate effort to beat back the English army. Experts from Edinburgh Council are trying to establish which army most likely fired the stone ball during the fighting. 

In 1296, Edward I attempted to annex Scotland, and this began the Wars of Scottish Independence. As part of his invasion, he attacked Edinburgh Castle, one of the most important fortresses in all of Scotland. The Sun reports that the siege of 1296, is known as ‘the ‘Longshanks Siege’, after Edward I who was popularly known as Edward Longshanks. This siege saw this fierce monarch capture the stronghold and station a garrison of knights to hold it for the English Crown.

The front gates of Edinburgh Castle (ex_flow / Adobe Stock)

The front gates of Edinburgh Castle ( ex_flow / Adobe Stock )

The fortress became an important base from which the English were able to launch raids in a bid to beat the Scots into submission during the wars of 1296-1316. On one raid from the stronghold they managed to capture the legendary Stone of Destiny also known as the Stone of Scone . This was used for the coronation of successive Scottish monarchs and was a symbol of the nation’s sovereignty.

The Scots began to fiercely resist the occupying English forces, first under William Wallace and later, Andrew de Moray and Robert the Bruce . In 1314, The Sun reports that Moray launched ‘a surprise attack and with a small band of 20 men’’, recaptured Edinburgh Castle. The Scots defeated the English at the Battle of Bannockburn and with this victory they finally secured their independence in 1316.

Stone of Scone replica (CC by SA 3.0)

Stone of Scone replica ( CC by SA 3.0 )

The Importance of the Stone ‘Cannonball’

Researchers are now trying to definitively link the projectile to the siege of 1296. They are certain that it was fired during one of the many assaults on Edinburgh Castle.  If a connection is established, it would allow them to better understand the siege of the fortress of 1296 and warfare during the Scottish Wars of Independence.  Experts are now trying to examine the stone ball and they are using it to calculate the dimensions of the trebuchet that fired it. This chance discovery is allowing specialists to better understand medieval warfare and demonstrating that kings such as Edward I had formidable artillery long before cannons became widely used.

Top image: Old catapult in Les Baux-de-Provence, France ( Nejron Photo / Adobe Stock)

By Ed Whelan

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